It all started in 2020 with a conversation between a father and daughter – one that ended with a promise for the future.
As Michael Cole tells the story, his daughter Lauren, who had battled with addiction for years, said, “Dad, there are so many people suffering from addiction that need and want help, but they don’t have the resources or family to get it. Do you think that when you retire, we can do something to help them?”
Just a few weeks later, amid the pandemic, Lauren’s daily routine was interrupted when she had to self-quarantine, and she relapsed. On July 9, 2020, at the age of 26, she was sold drugs that contained a lethal dose of fentanyl.
Soon after, Cole felt compelled to fulfill the promise he made and quite literally began to make Lauren’s Wish come true.
Cole found a group of like-minded individuals who each had their own experiences with a loved one’s battle with addiction and formed a board of directors that included Dr. Ken Blankenship, Edward Boyle II, John Todd, Rebecca Crytser and Mike Castle.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago, I would have been part of an addiction triage center, I would have said ‘I don’t think so – I don’t know the first thing about it,’ ” Boyle said.
In the beginning, Boyle said, “It took us a while. We all collectively got together – there were three of us, then four of us, then six of us. Then in the meetings it was – ‘OK, where do we make a difference?’”
They identified an area of addiction treatment that was overlooked – a gap in time between release from a hospital following an overdose and acceptance to a long-term treatment program.
“Nobody has really ever addressed this void between the ER and long term,” Cole said. “It’s a brain disease. They feel that they have to use that drug like you and I need our next breath. I don’t care what you tell them, what you threaten them with – there is no consequence. They just believe they have to have it.
“So, when you’re in the ER and there’s not a bed ready and you walk out those doors and hit the parking lot,” he explained, “you’re going right back to where you came from.”
For nearly two years, the nonprofit worked to raise funds through fashion shows, golf tournaments, birthday bashes and private donations – many from the board members themselves — to open a facility that could provide a safe and healthy space for those seeking placement in a treatment program.
Lauren’s Wish comes true
In October 2022, the Lauren’s Wish Addiction Triage Center at Hazel’s House of Hope opened its doors to its first clients. The 28-bed center features several common areas where those in recovery can relax, socialize, and hold group therapy sessions, including two TV rooms and even a workout facility.
While staying at Lauren’s Wish, clients are supervised by an around-the-clock peer recovery staff and have access to case management and addiction recovery resources, including individual and group counseling.
A stay at the center could range from a few days to a few weeks, but once a long-term placement is found, Lauren’s Wish transports a client directly to their next step.
“When you leave the ER, you come to a safe environment – we keep you in that safe environment until you get to your next step,” Cole said.
A tour of the center reveals the rooms where clients stay still greatly resemble the hotel rooms they once were, each equipped with two beds and a full bathroom.
The hallway walls are decorated with an array of artwork. Quite a few of the pieces are said to have been created by former clients as a way to say thank you to Lauren’s Wish.
“I can’t pay you, but I want to do this for you,” they said one former client told them as they gifted some of their artwork to the organization.
Outside in a courtyard area, Lauren’s Wish Memorial Garden has been established. Complete with benches and a gazebo, the plants and painted rocks throughout the area offer color even on an overcast fall day.
“It gives them an opportunity to leave the enclosed environment and go out and get some fresh air,” Cole said.
One year after accepting the first clients, more than 360 individuals have come through the doors, Cole said. The triage center has an average of 16-19 clients at any given time.
Of those 360+ individuals who have stayed at Lauren’s Wish, Cole said around 96% have been placed into a long-term recovery center.
The center’s success in its first year has far exceeded the expectations of Cole and the other board members.
“Internally, I was thinking if we could get 80% to do it, that would be great – but 96%?” Cole said. “You know the staff is doing something right with a 96% success rate.”
Following a tour of the Addiction Recovery Center earlier this week, The Dominion Post asked Cole, Boyle and Todd what they thought was the greatest success of their first year.
“Client feedback,” Cole said without hesitation.
The trio went on to explain the number of letters, e-mails and other correspondence they have received from former Lauren’s Wish clients, not to mention artwork and other gifts.
They said the messages will say things like, “You guys hit this thing right on the head.” “You guys found the missing link – the missing piece.” “You filled a void.”
A Learning Curve
Getting the triage center to where it is now was not an easy journey. The board members said they have had to tackle a few issues that popped up along the way but have learned a lot in the last year.
“There was a lot of little things that we never realized or thought about,” Todd said.
One of those things was the transportation costs.
“Whenever you are ready to go to your further care, we transport you there. Whether it’s here in Morgantown, whether it’s Charleston, Parkersburg, Maryland, Virginia; no matter where it’s at, we take you there. So again, you’re not going back out into the general population,” Cole said.
Adding to that, another factor they had not anticipated was the number of repeat clients they would receive. Because recovery is such a long process, the average 28-day facility is not enough for those with substance abuse disorder, a brain disease.
“Sometimes they have to go to a 28-day program,” Cole explained. “And in 28 days, you’re not going to cure a brain disease – and they know that. So, day 25, day 26, they call us and say, ‘Hey do you guys have a bed open? I’m going to be completed with this in two or three days.’ So, we go and pick them up and bring them back here and we search for another sobering center or wherever it is they need to go, then transport them there.”
The Lauren’s Wish organization doesn’t plan to stop with the Addiction Triage Center. Sometime in the future they hope to start Lauren’s Ladder, a long-term women’s program that would mirror board member Blankenship’s Jacob’s Ladder at Brookside Farm. Jacob’s Ladder is a long-term residential treatment program for men centered around a working farm in Aurora, Preston County, which also has been successful.
Several major projects are being planned for the Lauren’s Wish Memorial Garden as well, including an addition of a fence that would fully enclose the area and allow clients to spend a lot more time outside.
They are also preparing to construct a memorial wall in the garden that will serve as a tribute to those who have lost their battles with addiction. By contributing $100 to Lauren’s Wish, a customized plaque will be placed on the wall to honor and remember your family member or friend who died due to substance use disorder.
Ending the Stigma
Educating the community about substance abuse disorder, addiction and the dangers of fentanyl has also become a big part of the mission for Lauren’s Wish.
“You think as a parent or relative that you can stop this, and really you have no idea,” Todd said.
“The biggest thing we’re trying to do is keep another family from going through what we’re going through,” Cole said.
Erasing the stigma of addiction is important to the group, because they know first-hand the disease does not discriminate by social status, financial stability, age, gender, or race. It can and does happen every day to neighbors, friends and family.
Someone like Lauren Cole, a beautiful, smart, athletic, college student – a WVU cheerleader pursuing a master’s degree in social work with a loving family, probably isn’t one of the first people who comes to mind when addiction is mentioned.
“It’s bigger than anyone wants to realize or admit,” Cole said.
Clients at Lauren’s Wish will never be asked for money for treatment as services are free.
“Lauren’s whole point was that people want help, but they don’t have the family or resources,” Cole said. “That shouldn’t be the criteria of whether you receive help or not.”
If the client base continues to grow the way organizers believe it will, Boyle said it could start to cost the nonprofit organization upwards of $1 million a year to keep the doors open, but they will do whatever is necessary to keep Lauren’s Wish alive.
If the community continues to support the group and more people stand with them, Boyle said he believes “You just start to take a little bit of your community back each day at a time and say – ‘No, you’re not going to do that here.”
Like any nonprofit, growth means donations become increasingly important — anything from food, bottled water, Gatorade, clothes, volunteering or money. Go to laurenswish.org for more information on the many ways to help fight against addiction.
“We’re not asking the community to foot the entire bill,” Boyle said. “Just asking them to help.”
Anyone interested in learning more about Lauren’s Wish, taking a tour of the Addiction Triage Center, or in need of their services is encouraged to visit the website or call 304-241-4000 for more information.